The Fear of Death: the cause not the curse




1 Corinthians 15:54-57

When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?

    Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

The general, broad-brush conception of “Original Sin” is that the first sin of the first humans brought death into the world, death for all.

The general broad-brush (probably poorly understood) but revolutionary Orthodox topsy-turvy spin on all this is that it is the fear of death that leads to sin.

 At first and second glance this seems to hold up well with what we see in the world. The hoarding of wealth by the richest percentile(s) causes the gross – and ever increasing - inequality of today’s world. We hoard in the hope that our possessions/wealth will in some way prolong our individual lives (or at least allow us to live a life which feels prolonged). In a similar vein our need for stuff is symptomatic of our desire for legacy, something to outlast us, to remind others of our presence even though we are no longer present. In fact, we can see this drive lurking beneath the giving of presents to loved ones towards the end of one’s life (even bequeathing heirlooms in a will often falls under this desire to be remembered every time our children, or better yet grandchildren, look at our jewelry). Another example is found in those who devote their lives to work in the hopes of creating a lasting legacy, often done at the expense of relationships and experiences. These people are comforted (or driven) by the hope that their legacy (be it a physical achievement/monument, or just the opportunities provided to their children) will in some way spare them death – or at least some of its sting. On a grander scale, war is oftentimes, launched simply out of a fear of death – and it operates at a micro level on this fear: that a soldier will fear death more than fear the ramifications of killing. Whether it is this violence, or the violence that comes from greed, or neglect, we can see how (and this really was just a cursory glance) the fear of death is at the root of sin – [I think that this could be extrapolated out to cover most sin (be it adultery, theft, or idolatry) the root of it all seems an inability to come to terms with death and thus the search for something to prolong or abate its sting.]

 So something must enter this space, and that something is usually religion. Religion (and let’s refine our gaze to Christianity with which I am personally involved and invested) has traditionally sought to deal with the fear of death not with life now, but life then. The sting of death is gone, because – to quote a lyric – ‘death is not the end’. But this kind of escapism doesn’t really help solve the problem of sin, because very few can be so assuaged, so comforted by the life beyond that they do not still seek to remove the sting in the life now, and many fall simply back into the greed and the violence that we have already charted.

 But I think, Christianity, with its centerpiece: the New Being, Jesus the Christ, runs an alternative sting removal campaign, free from escapism and fear.

Christ is life, new life, new creation. This is where ‘born again’ comes in – not in the acceptance of doctrine and dogma, but in the acceptance of life, new life.

 With this acceptance there is a dying to oneself, perhaps better thought of as emptying oneself. Not emptying that which makes us unique, nor surrendering passions and personality. But emptying that which drives us to live for ourselves, emptying that which needs for us to be around when we are no longer around. We empty ourselves so that we do not live for ourselves, but rather so that we can live for others. By living for others we fulfill the law, and thus are living for Christ, we are living as new creations here and now.

 As new creations, born again, we empty ourselves of the fear of death, not because of a life that is to come, but because of the life that is now (all the life, the depth of life that is available). It is not selling out our fellows (which comes from the fear that leads to greed and the faith that leads to escape) it is buying in to the world, investing in the now, through the selfless love/hospitality/service of the other. Our embrace of the New Being and acceptance of our status of new creations liberates us from the fear of death because it overcomes sin… overcomes separation.

 We have been running with the idea that the root of our sin is the fear of death. If we now take up the idea of sin as separation – separation from ourselves, our fellow, and the ground of our being (Tillich) – then this becomes even more fascinating (if the author does himself brag).

 In the early church God was associated/viewed as primarily two things:

God is love

God is life

 Our fear of dying becomes the root of our separation because how could we draw near to the God who is life while driven, characterised, consumed, and frozen by a fear of death. (I want to mic drop here, but I’m really just piggybackin on other people’s points so that’d be poor form).


What do we do?

We respond to the call… viens, oui, oui//come, yes, yes (Caputo). Respond to the call to live (whatever it may bring). Respond to be born again into the world as new creations free from the fear of death, where death has been swallowed up. We respond to the call to be unshackled by the need to live, by the need to preserve our self, the need to survive, to hoard, and to leave a legacy. We respond to the call to empty ourselves so that we can live for others (and thus for Christ).

 Stanley Hauerwas says “life must always be viewed fundamentally as a gift, not a ‘right’ that we are entitled to. We cannot participate in ‘rights’ we can only exercise them in self-destructive ways”. This is why the fear of death is the root of sin. How can we be gracious, hospitable, loving, or faithful when we hold our life tightly, squeezing it in mortal terror, blinded by the chance that might slip between our fingers? The self, emptied of the self, embraces the depth of life through the devotion to the other, and by this it overcomes the fear of death and embraces the call of the New Being, the call to love… and by this they will know that we are his disciples.